5 December 2022
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6 January 2023

[REPLAY] A look back at the Annual Conference 2022 : Digital Sovereignty and Geopolitical Crisis

This year, the annual conference of the Digital, Governance and Sovereignty Chair adopted a geopolitical perspective on digital sovereignty. It traced the history of the concept outside of Europe and explored its possible links with digital authoritarianism.

The conference kicked off with a keynote by Nate Persily (James B. McClatchy Professor of law at Stanford Law School, Co-Director, Stanford Cyber Policy Center), who argued that some of the constitutive features of digital technologies represent a comparative advantage for authoritarian regimes in their ability to conduct censorship, surveillance and propaganda. However, he pointed out that the authoritarian potential of these technologies is not uniform as it largely depends on the resources and means of each regime. This first presentation was followed by Sergei Guriev’s (Provost, Professor of Economics at Sciences Po) contribution, who argued that the use of digital technologies is connected to the emergence of “spin dictatorships”, namely authoritarian regimes that increasingly rely on manipulation rather than fear to consolidate their power. He also underlined the democratic ambivalence of these technologies, as they can both open up new spaces for contestation in the face of corruption or facilitate the spread of populist speech. Arancha González (Dean of the School of International Affairs (PSIA), Sciences Po) concluded the session by discussing how widespread belief in the democratising power of technology has been gradually replaced in various parts of the world by a techno-nationalist narrative, which emphasises the need for states to regain control over the digital space.

Opening Session: Digital Sovereignty and Digital Authoritarianism

The other two panels of the conference then discussed two distinct approaches to digital sovereignty within authoritarian regimes, that of Russia and China.

The first panel opened with Julien Nocetti’s (Professor at Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan, holder of the Cyber Risk Governance Chair at the Rennes School of Business) presentation, which traced the history of information sovereignty in Russia. More specifically, he described the growing use of state regulation to control the flow of information in and out of Russia since the Arab Spring. Drawing on her research on Russian Internet infrastructure, Ksenia Ermoshina (Researcher at the CNRS, Centre Internet et Societé) argued that Russia’s legal ambitions to decouple its information space in fact exceeded its technological capabilities. In her view, the complexity of the Russian network and its dependence on Western technologies make it difficult to implement policies such as the Sovereign Internet Law of 2019. Marie-Gabrielle Bertran (PhD student at the French Institute of Geopolitics, University of Paris 8) then presented some of the measures taken by the Russian government since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, in particular the accelerated deployment of monitoring systems. Conversely, she observed a weakening of the Russian network as a result of Western sanctions and the exodus of many tech workers. Finally, Nicolas Mazzucchi (Director of Research, Centre d’études stratégiques de la Marine) discussed the cyber defence issues raised by the Russian strategy and the limits of Russia’s offensive capacity in cyberspace, noting the relative failure of its informational attacks in Ukraine. The panel was moderated by Guy-Philippe Goldstein (Lecturer at the Ecole de Guerre Economique, Advisor PwC).

Panel 1: La souveraineté numérique en Russie à l’heure de la guerre en Ukraine

The second panel opened with a presentation by Rogier Creemers (Lecturer in Modern Chinese Studies, Leiden University), who demonstrated how China’s digital strategy has historically developed as a reaction to the US hegemony in cyberspace, which is perceived as a threat to the regime’s stability. He also identified some of the main components of this strategy: the “territorialisation” of the Internet, the “indigenisation” of suppliers, and investments in new technologies. Anupam Chander (Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Law and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center, Georgetown University) then pointed out that digital sovereignty was built by default in the United States, which is why the concept remains largely alien to the American public debate. However, he noted a relative reconfiguration of power relations, as reflected in the conflicting dynamics between the US government and Chinese technology companies. Following on this, Stephanie Balme (Research Professor, Dean of the Undergraduate College, Sciences Po ) discussed the Chinese Communist Party’s reactions to the US government’s attempts to frame China’s digital strategy as a threat to its national security and taking measures to limit the growing influence of Chinese digital technologies globally. Finally, Johannes Thumfart (senior postdoctoral researcher, Vrije Universiteit Brussels) explored some of the links between the development of digital sovereignty and the concepts of digital colonialism and decolonialism, and highlighted the contradictions and limitations in the use of these terms within both the European and Chinese political discourse. The panel was moderated by Alice Pannier (Head of the Geopolitics of Technology program at IFRI).

Panel 2 : Digital Sovereignty and the Chinese Strategy of a Sovereign Internet